The Scarlet Alchemist by Kylie Lee Baker

I’m almost hesitant to recommend The Scarlet Alchemist, not because it’s a bad book, but because it’s a fantastic book, but the sequel doesn’t come out until (it’s estimated) October. I gobbled this book up in one sitting and now I have to sit and wait pathetically to find out what happens next. 

The story is set in a version of historical China where alchemists have figured out the key to immortality. The wealthy eat a special variety of gold that the alchemists make which prevents them from aging–you can still be killed though, as your body is not impervious to injury. As a result the wealthy sequester themselves in their homes, avoiding possible accidents or injury, and prolong their lives as long as possible.

The poor and working class have no access to this special gold, making the divide between classes even more apparent. The heroine of the novel, Zilan, is part of that working class which is barely scraping by. Her father was a White man and her mother Chinese, making her biracial and therefore viewed as inferior. Both her parents are dead, and she lives with her aunt and uncle and two cousins, who took her in even though they can barely feed themselves.

Zilan’s father came to China to study alchemy, and in his notes she’s found the secret to resurrecting the dead–an act that’s extremely forbidden. She performs this in secret, earning extra money to help her family, but her real goal is to pass the test to become a royal alchemist, earning herself a position in the royal court and enough money to send back home. 

Zilan and her cousins travel to the capital where she will take the alchemist’s exam while they take exams to become royal scholars. Once they arrive, they realize something odd is happening in and around the royal court. People are being found torn to death as if by wild animals, and once Zilan passes her test (using her wits, as she never received formal training) she realizes the role of royal alchemist is not what she imagined.

Added to this is the fact that the Immortal Empress’s son and heir seeks Zilan out. He has heard rumors that she can resurrect people, and he’s been facing assassination attempts that make him believe his life is about to end. 

I loved this book because it has so many elements–Byzantine court politics, mystery, romance (between Zilan and the prince) and high magic fantasy–and they all blend together seamlessly. Each element enhances the entire story, like adding the perfect blend of spices to a dish.

The prince has lived a pampered existence, and while he’s smart and aware of what’s really going on at court, he needs Zilan’s magic and grit to help him survive. The romance here is very much a “rescuing the princess,” but gender flipped. The prince is also kind and very gentle, something Zilan doesn’t have a lot of experience with.

There’s also a lot of world building and detail around the magic system that made the setting feel incredibly real and nuanced. I’ve also never read a book where the magic system was based on alchemy, so it was fun getting something brand new to me.

The pacing of the book is also excellent, and by the time the court intrigue picks up, things are rolling along at a speed that makes this book super hard to put down.

If you needed another reason to read this book, Zilan has to create life in one of her exams and manages to make a duckling named Durian. Because alchemy produces equal parts good and evil, he is sometimes a naughty duckling. I would die for Durian.

Although the main conflict is resolved, there’s definitely an element of a cliffhanger here and the next book is scheduled to come out late in 2024. Literally that is the only reason I would hold off on reading this book. The Scarlet Alchemist gave me a mega book hangover, and now I can’t wait for the sequel to come out. 


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